It's easy to understand the appeal of Apple Inc.'s iPod Nano music and video player: It's slim and simple to use, and it has a crisp 2-inch LCD screen. Its brand name is considered synonymous with hip tech gear.
But what if you want a player that looks different from those wielded by the Nano army, costs less, includes features like an FM radio or voice recorder, and lets you drag and drop songs from your computer desktop instead of going through Apple's iTunes software?
I tried out a handful of options and found three to highlight. All include a bevy of features and support multiple file types including MP3 and Windows Media (WMA) tunes, MPEG4 videos and JPEG photos. These players are not perfect, but it is comforting to know there is multimedia life off Apple's planet.
Iriver Lplayer: Owing to its diminutive hotness and fairly strong performance across the board, iriver's Lplayer ($100-$130) was my favorite of the bunch.
The sleek little device comes with 4 or 8 gigabytes of flash memory storage. Its face consists solely of a 2-inch screen whose sides can be pressed to control the device. The only buttons — for power and volume — are tiny and located discreetly on one side. There's also an easy-to-miss hold switch on the Lplayer's back.
The controls were a little confusing at first, as I initially assumed clicking the middle of the screen would serve as a sort of "enter" or "play" button (it doesn't). But once I got used to it, I liked the simplicity.
The Lplayer's screen is bright, and photos and videos looked fairly crisp. I would have preferred better image quality, but it was good enough that I enjoyed seeing a 15-minute video while commuting home.
My music sounded pretty good on the Lplayer, and while I wouldn't want to read a novel on the tiny screen, its support for files in the "TXT" text format make it a good place to keep simple notes.
I'm usually not a fan of included media player software, but I liked the clean, uncluttered look of the iriver software and found it fairly easy to use.
Though this device was the fattest of the bunch, being a bit larger than a Zippo lighter meant it was also the easiest to hold in my palm. Its battery can handle 12 hours of music playback (3 1/2 hours of video playback) — still far less than the up to 24 hours of audio (or five hours of video) that the Nano boasts, but enough for a plane ride or a day spent out and about.
Sansa Fuze: Of the mini-multimedia players I tested, the Sansa Fuze ($80-$130) looks most like the current-generation Nano. But where the Apple device draws you in with a crystal-clear LCD, the Fuze offers a subpar, 1.9-inch display.
The Fuze's screen was plenty bright, but images did not look crisp and were plagued by what looked like slim vertical lines across the face. This made it annoying to view photos and videos, and would turn me off from watching something longer than a YouTube-length clip.
The Fuze got points for its more traditional set of controls and rubbery-feeling clickwheel, which made it easier to operate than the others. I had no problem scrolling through tunes or the device's main menu, and could navigate faster than on the other players I tested.
The Fuze also scores with its microSD slot that lets users expand the player's flash memory capacity (included memory ranges from 2 to 8 gigabytes). This is important to me, as I tend to swap microSD cards between my cell phone and digital camera and like being able to move photos and MP3s with ease.
I encountered a strange problem with JPEG photos on a microSD card, though, as the Fuze first told me it didn't support the file type. But it does: It soon proceeded to show me the photos.
Those looking for capacity at a low price will note that the 8-gigabyte Fuze costs less than the 4-gigabyte Nano, which costs $149. Also, the player is rated for up to 24 hours of music playback (or five hours of video playback), which is right up there with its body double.
Samsung YP-S3: With its long, slender body and glowing, touch-sensitive LED controls, Samsung's S3 ($100, due out by early fall) looks oddly like the top half of a flip phone.
Despite that and some other annoyances, the S3 — available with 4 gigabytes in the U.S., though I tested a 2-gigabyte version — proved to be pretty solid.
Most notable is the S3's crisp, 1.8-inch LCD that is surprisingly good for watching videos or viewing photos.
Images show up in wide-screen mode, so it is necessary to turn the device sideways to watch videos. The S3's controls also rotate with the video and photo functions, which can get confusing.
Listening to music on the device was simple, with lots of equalization options that were easier to manipulate than on the other players I tested.
And when using the player's digital radio, I enjoyed seeing information like artist names, song titles and the names of stations I tuned in to.
Another feature unique to the S3 was the inclusion of several games, with more set to be available for free over time through Samsung.
The device's playback time is rated as essentially comparable to the Nano, with 25 hours of audio, four hours of video.
But while the controls were nice to look at, my fingers would sometimes hit the wrong LED on the S3's small, flat face, resulting in unexpected actions like the music suddenly stopping.
I also thought it was odd that the S3's radio would stop playing when I navigated other areas of the player — something that didn't happen when listening to my MP3s.
For those looking outside the iPod box, all these devices offer a good jumping-off point. And hey, if you try a non-Nano and find it's not for you, don't despair: If you've built a library of MP3s, they should work just as well on an iPod.